It’s not a problem, exactly. Like most things that cause him discomfort, Shen Wei can endure it. And if he can endure it, it’s not a problem, right?
No. It’s not a problem.
It’s just - it’s just, sometimes there’s so much. Sometimes this life, for all that he has structured it so carefully, with his books and brushes and fiercely defended solitude, is just - too fast. Too bright. Too noisy, in a way that transcends aural input and become an assault on his very soul.
He doesn’t know how Haixingren stand it, sometimes. Emails, texts, phone calls, social media. Where are you? Who are you with? How fast can you get there? Why didn’t you answer?
He gets that life is, objectively, better now than it was when he was a child. There’s no outright war, no roving groups of bandits, no untamed dark energy causing instability. For Haixingren, there is better healthcare, access to education, and all the benefits that come with an evolved society. For Dixingren -
For Dixingren there is -
Dixing… Dixing at least doesn’t have a war. Or bandits. Peace for Dixing is what he had wished for, longed for, fought for. Thought, at one point, that he had died for.
Now, in the future, he finds that possibly he should have hoped for more than peace for his people. He’d been so young, and the world had been so different - things like standardized education and a publicly-funded health care system hadn’t really occurred to him.
A Byzantine electronic superstructure carrying a constant flow of information certainly hadn’t. And for all that he’s glad for freedom of information and the multiplicity of person-to-person connections that are possible with such easy communication, sometimes he thinks that if he has to put up with the constant electrical whine for one more minute he’s going to scream.
Usually he’s good at managing this. He’s developed a reputation at the University for being willing to sub in on field trips, and that gets him out of the city and into the mountains regularly enough that he can breathe. It’s a brief reprieve, but it’s enough of a break to keep him going.
But this term, no one has scheduled a field trip. And last term, the only trip he’d gotten to take had turned into a cat-and-mouse game with Zhu Jiu as he frantically tried to maintain his covers as the Envoy and the Professor under Zhao Yunlan’s all-too-perceptive eye. It was hardly a chance to rest and drink in the mountain air.
Zhao Yunlan has caught him twice now sitting on the bathroom floor with his hands over his ears and his face buried in his knees. That’s obviously unacceptable.
If he can just figure out a way to create… some kind of dark energy bubble, perhaps, around himself, or at least around his head, that will block out some of the input without causing damage - he came close yesterday, but it didn’t last long and he gave himself a migraine and a nosebleed in the process. Hardly a solution.
If he can just - if he can just keep part of his mind occupied with solving the problem, maybe he can make it through this class without snapping at any of his students, a sin so unforgivable that the very thought of committing it gives him an anxious adrenaline rush.
If only he couldn’t tell that no less than six of those students are receiving texts right now. They respect his classroom enough not to be answering, but having a strict ‘phones away’ rule only resolves part of the problem.
Two-thirds of them have received emails since the class began. At least half have some kind of social media thing activated that never stops making noise.
“Professor? Are you all right?”
He forces the electronic din back and refocuses. The students are starting to look a little worried.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Shen Wei says. His jaw is clenched so tightly that he can hear his teeth creak, but he manages to paste a semblance of his usual smile onto his face. “I apologize. Please turn to the end of the chapter.”
He lets them go ten minutes early. He can’t bear it a moment longer. As soon as the classroom is empty, he teleports directly home, dropping his papers in an untidy heap on the coffee table. Zhao Yunlan, sprawled on the couch, sits up in alarm.
“Shen Wei? Did something -”
“A moment,” Shen Wei grinds out, hurrying into the bathroom.
He sits on the floor and presses his back against the wall. The ceramic tile and the fixtures don’t block the electrical whine, exactly, but it gets scrambled enough that it’s slightly less overwhelming. He clamps his hands over his ears.
Maybe he should consider teleporting to the mountains. The strain of crossing such a distance all at once will probably knock him out for a day or so, which is dangerous, but it might be necessary. He cannot continue like this for much longer. He certainly can’t show up in Dixing this way.
It’s possible that this may now count as a problem.
If only he could think - he should have realised earlier how compromised he was becoming. What if there is an emergency? What if Zhao Yunlan is in danger and Shen Wei can’t focus enough to help him?
This has gone beyond affecting just him. If it’s putting Zhao Yunlan in danger then it is certainly a problem, and one he must solve by any means necessary. As soon as he can calm his scrambled thoughts - another minute, maybe two - he’ll try to make it to the mountains. Hopefully having his concentration so disrupted won’t cause too much of an issue. Technically, he supposes, even if he knocks himself out on the way and doesn’t quite make it, it will be rest of a sort. And it will be harder for an enemy to find him if even he doesn’t know where he’ll end up.
Warm hands on his wrists startle him. He raises his head.
Zhao Yunlan is kneeling in front of him, frowning slightly. He hadn’t even realised Zhao Yunlan had followed him, although in retrospect he should have predicted that. Zhao Yunlan worries.
He should lower his hands and try to explain.
He can’t. He loves Zhao Yunlan but he can’t.
He tries to smile. “A moment. Please.”
Zhao Yunlan tugs at his wrists, gentle but insistent.
For the first time in a very long time, Shen Wei thinks he’s actually going to cry. He shakes his head. Not even for Zhao Yunlan.
Zhao Yunlan reaches down and picks something up, holding it out. It looks like a pair of bulky headphones. He raises his eyebrows at Shen Wei, gesturing towards his head.
Shen Wei stares at him, too miserable to understand why Zhao Yunlan is being so insistent. How is listening to music possibly going to help him?
Zhao Yunlan leans forward and kisses him very softly on the forehead, then repeats the gesture, calm but implacable.
The message comes across clearly. Trust me.
Shen Wei steels himself and lowers his hands.
The constant scream of electricity rises in his ears, painful enough that he flinches and closes his eyes. He feels the headphones settle on his head, feels more than hears the click of a switch being flipped.
Absolute shocking silence descends.
Relief so intense it’s nearly pain floods through him, leaving him stunned and gasping in its wake. Never, not for years - it’s never been this quiet. Not even in the old days, before the relentless howl of technological progress, before whatever skill he’d learned had landed him with this side effect. There had been birds, wind, insects, battle -
It’s so, so quiet. He thinks he might actually be crying from the relief of it but he’s too overwhelmed to focus. Dimly, he realises that he’s gripping Zhao Yunlan’s arm with more force than he should be using, and manages to make his fingers unclench. The tendons in his hand creak as he does it.
He should probably open his eyes to make sure Zhao Yunlan’s not too worried, to start reassembling his composure, but he cannot make himself relinquish the safety of quiet and darkness quite yet. Muscles he hadn’t even realised were engaged are starting to relax. There’s actual bloodflow passing through his shoulders and neck now. It’s making his scalp and the tips of his fingers tingle.
He doesn’t know how long he sits there, just breathing, alone except for his own heartbeat, but it’s probably longer than it should be. Eventually his sense of responsibility manages to overcome his selfishness, and he makes himself open his eyes.
It’s soothingly dark in the bathroom. Zhao Yunlan must have turned out the lights. He’s sitting a few careful inches away from where Shen Wei is slumped against the wall, reading something by actual candlelight. It looks like a comic book.
For a moment Shen Wei allows himself to sink into the fathomless ocean of affection he has for the man next to him. It’s not an indulgence he allows himself very frequently; it would be far too easy to drown in it, especially during the long dark years when he’d worried that Kunlun might be lost to him forever.
Maybe sensing his regard, Zhao Yunlan looks up from his comic book and gives him a gentle smile. Unhurriedly, he balances a small pad of paper on the comic book, takes a ballpoint pen from behind his ear, and scrawls Better?
“Much,” Shen Wei says. His voice comes out muffled and echoey with the headphones. “Thank you. Sorry.”
Zhao Yunlan shakes his head. No apol. nec.
“How did you figure this out?” Shen Wei asks. He knows he hadn’t been very subtle about it, particularly recently, but it seems like a big leap to go from ‘Shen Wei seems stressed’ to ‘I should find a way to help him block out electronic signals’.
Zhao Yunlan gives him a roguish grin and makes a gesture that’s clearly supposed to convey the obviousness of his innate genius.
Shen Wei can’t help but smile. “Of course. You’re right. How silly of me.” He waits a beat. “Please thank Lin Jing for me.”
Zhao Yunlan gasps in affront, but his expression softens the instant Shen Wei laughs.
Does this happen often?
The guilt of having let it get so out of hand makes a comeback. “No. Usually I’m better at managing it.”
Zhao Yunlan doesn’t like that. Having known Zhao Yunlan for a while now and having had to endure several painful discussions on the topic, Shen Wei can acknowledge at least intellectually that Zhao Yunlan is probably more upset about the idea of Shen Wei ‘managing it’ than the fact that he failed to, but he still finds it hard to see that frown on Zhao Yunlan’s face. He looks away.
“I’m not, uh, actually sure where I picked this one up. I think it may have been a side effect from learning something else. That happens sometimes. It’s possible it’s connected to one of my energy manipulation abilities, or, or maybe…” he trails off, aware that he’s babbling nonsensically.
The pad appears under his nose, close enough that he has to pull back a little before he can read it. Touch okay?
“Yes?” Shen Wei says, unsure, and then it clicks - the low lighting, Zhao Yunlan’s careful distance when he’s such a tactile person. He’s been trying to limit things that could overwhelm Shen Wei further.
He has to swallow around a lump in his throat. “Yes,” he repeats.
Zhao Yunlan scoots over until his hip and thigh are flush with Shen Wei’s, the warmth seeping through Shen Wei’s nice Professor suit pants and chasing away some of the chill from the tiled bathroom floor. He slots his arm behind Shen Wei’s neck, careful not to disturb the headphones, and then gently tips Shen Wei’s head over until it’s resting against the side of his own.
Shen Wei breathes out, shakily. He’s still not used to this, this easy contact. Sometimes he feels like he’s spent his life watching people around him, trying to decipher the unspoken signals that mean welcome and yes, please touch - mostly so he can avoid sending them, but also with a sternly suppressed longing. There’s a confidence in this kind of familiarity that he wishes he knew how to have even while he knows it’s not a good idea.
“I’m sorry I let it get this far,” he says. He’s not sorry for this moment, not sorry for the opportunity to see Zhao Yunlan’s effortless ability to show care for someone, but he’s sorry that Zhao Yunlan has been worried and inconvenienced. He knows it’s not physically possible for him to arrange things so that Zhao Yunlan can be happy 100% of the time, but he still regrets every time that he fails.
Shut up. Zhao Yunlan’s pen digs into the pad. He hesitates for a moment, hand slightly raised, and then writes, more softly, I wish you could give yourself a break sometimes.
This moment is fleeting. It’s dangerous for Shen Wei to allow one of his senses to be so completely disabled. He trusts Zhao Yunlan implicitly, so it’s okay for right now. But he knows it can’t last forever.
“This is a break,” he says, his voice coming out rougher than he’d intended.
Zhao Yunlan sighs. He sets the pad aside, shifting his legs to a more comfortable position, and raises his free hand to brush against Shen Wei’s hair. Even his fingertips are warm.
Shen Wei closes his eyes. It will be alright if they sit here for a few minutes more.